THE FLIPPANT FLICKER

This is the fourth of Mr. Fraser's series of chats about animal friends he has met in Canada. Further articles will appear during the next few months.

W. A. FRASER October 15 1924

THE FLIPPANT FLICKER

This is the fourth of Mr. Fraser's series of chats about animal friends he has met in Canada. Further articles will appear during the next few months.

W. A. FRASER October 15 1924

THE FLIPPANT FLICKER

W. A. FRASER

This is the fourth of Mr. Fraser's series of chats about animal friends he has met in Canada. Further articles will appear during the next few months.

MY HOUSE is on the fringe of Toronto—the Hill District. The land hereabouts was formerly an orchard, so apple trees still grow on the lawns. There are two in my back garden.

Because of all this, arboreal surroundings, we have many birds associating with us.

One pair of birds, crested flycatchers, have furnished me with extraordinary evidence of the something that regulates a bird’s brain tn his trade of keeping alive.

There is a row of apple trees just opposite my window. It is really a dead end of a street, so it is somewhat like a preserve, for there is practically no travel. This pair of birds first built a nest in the top of an apple tree, this tree being number five from the corner. I was sorry for the trusting little couple when I saw them putting the nest in this exposed site, for the crows, and blackbirds, and hawks, even red squirrels, consider a nest of eggs legitimate loot. The robins hide their nests in the crotch of a tree in the thick foliage, and never near the top; even at that I often come across shattered blue shells lying on the ground, and see a pair of robins chasing the big, black, lumbering thief of a crow.

Well, the little couple finished the nest and the hen bird got down to business. The cock bird would come in the evening and sit on the hydro wires that ran along the front of my lawn; he always sat facing the nest. He was a classy-looking chap with his dark morning coat, and a light.gray vest; a rakish little topknot gave him a devil-may-care appearance. But there was never any trouble over that nest. To me it seemed a slovenly constructed home for such a dapper, tidy chap to be householder of. Four or five thick white strings dangled loosely from it.

The pair hatched their brood and went away early. Either while boys were gathering apples in the Fall, or from some other cause in the winter, the nest was battered. Last Spring I saw evidently the same pair of birds building a nest in tree number two from the comer. It was built in the same exposed situation, and in this tree it was even more open to the eyes of predatory birds, for it was in front of the house.

As the home approached completion a sudden inspiration came to me;, there were the four or five dangling white strings, and yonder back in tree number five still clung the old nest, and still swung in the gentle Summer breeze the white strings. This was a defence; it was built to look like a trap or a snare, and perched high so that the strings of defence would not be hidden by foliage. It looked like an invitation to a blackbird or a crow to come and get snared. I think the little cock bird was mighty proud of the thing; he’d sit on the wire and cock his eye down at me as much as to say: “All safe, sir—don’t worry!”

I haven’t been able to verify this trait in this bird, but I am sure that in no other way could they have saved that nest of eggs, exposed to the black murderers of the air.

The Flippant Flicker

RATHER a demure chap, in his dull-gold suit, with the blood-red crescent on his neck. He has the air of, say, an English patrician done in a rusty tweed suit. But he can set a whole family by the ears; Ï should say a whole neighborhood. At least that is my experience.

When I first came to my present abode there were two vacant lots to my left; the usual apple trees, and one wooden pole carrying electric light wires. Ten feet from the ground there was a hole about the size of an orange in this pole. The first time I discovered this hole, I saw a long nose and brown head with a pair of shrewd, piercing eyes pop out—it was the head of my friend, the flicker; that was where he lived.

I knew of him before, however. The call of a woodpecker to his mate is to drum with his hard beak on the top of some dry, dead tree; it carries a long way. It is also their one amusement. I think he does it for fun; I think the flippant flicker did, anyway.

The roof of my house is slate; it also has, of course, tin eave-troughs. What could be more musical, more efficient, judged from a flicker’s requirements? At daylight, in the Spring, some one of my family would have to arise and throw a hair brush, or a boot, at the flicker, clinging to an eave-trough, and beating a devil’s tattoo either on the over-hanging slate or the tin trough. He’d go away, of course, but he wouldn’t stay away; he’d come around to the other side, the side my room was on. He was certainly a bird. Each Spring he seemed to arrive about two weeks before his mate, and as if his call could summon her from her Winter resort, he’d bang away.

Each Summer I had to have roofers come and replace several broken slates—he certainly was a bird! Not that he didn’t know a few choice words when he was angry, for I’ve heard him when he was in a tantrum carrying on in a way that no doubt would read very disgraceful if one had the hang of bird language.

In the Autumn I’d see him and his wife, and, with never more than one child, plodding about on the lawn sticking their long beaks here and there, into the grass roots. I don’t know what they were getting, for there was no digging up, no scratching, just a sharp drive in of that awl, and then a minute’s pause—something like a humming-bird in the mouth of a flower. Many a time I’ve sworn to fill that hole in the post with cement, but I never did.

The Owl

OCCASIONALLY, at night, in the Summer a plaintive palpitating whistle creeps in through the window. At first I declared stoutly that it was a racoon, for, as a boy, I had done considerably coon hunting at night, and well remembered that shrill, plaintive whistle from some tree top. But one night it was just beyond the window, and opening the door I saw, perched on the electric wire, a bunchy owl, looking solemn and self-satisfied in the moonlight. That was the plaintive whistler. I don’t know what he was after in the way of food, possibly young robins.

Once upon a time an owl gave me a great fright. I was travelling on the North Saskatchewan, myself and men being transported by wagon. It was dark when we came to a log shack, where we meant to camp for the night. I had just stepped down from the wagon, when there was a whirring noise, the charge of some shadowy thing, a powerful blow on my legs, and the sharp cut of beak or claw. I suppose I gave a yell, and then the great shadowy thing melted into the darkness —a huge owl, with mighty spread cf wings.

Sparrows

THERE is a saying that death and taxes are sure, but what about sparrows? I wonder if I should be ashamed to say that we throw out crusts to them in the Winter. I don’t remember having read a single defence of the sparrow. I fancy he’s all bad. Anybody with a reputation as evil as his is must be a tough.

But I want to say this for him: he’s the only chap in feathers that does a stroke of work for me. When the dandelions are out in their white cotton floss, that is meant to carry the seeds far and wide, he brings the whole gang that he runs with and they strip those seeds on my lawn. When the wire-grass, a snake-like thing that smothers and cuts the lawn grass to death, goes to seed, his gang tackles that job of cleaning up the evil.

The Jay

FOR about three days, some years ago, I watched a flock of jays clean up some beech trees in Muskoka; they were hoarding for a trip to their Winter resort.

In the tree that came under my observation a halfdozen jays worked. It was their thoroughly efficient plan that interested me. A jay would travel out along the slender swaying beech limb, for the nuts grew on the outer fringe, delicate branches not much bigger than a straw. With his strong nipper-like beak he would nip off a burr where it was joined to the tree by its slender stem, then back to the limb with it, grasp it by the stem on the limb with his left foot, and with about five drives with his chisel-like beak he’d have the kernel out. Perhaps as marvellous as his dexterity was his appetite and digestion. He ate all day; he must have eaten at least a quart of two of nuts.

Now who taught him that infallible quick-action way of coming by the beechnut kernel? Perhaps, like Topsy, the knowledge just growed.

And yet if a bird really thinks, has reasoning power, it’s almost as faulty as a man’s. The jay, clever in that beech-nutting, could be stupid enough under newer conditions.

When I was on the Saskatchewan, living in a log shack, . I was in the habit of putting my butter in the window to keep it cool. Persistently, a jay would come to the outside of the window and peck away at the pane of glass, seemingly under the impression that if he kept it up he would finally dip his beak into the butter. Of course glass is a much newer thing than jays; also this chap was a “whisky-jack”; the Canada jay, a halfbrother to the bluer-feathered jays in the beech tree.

On the northern prairies or in the lesser woods, when the traveler camps, he will presently hear “Peep, peep!” from some bush not ten feet away, and there will be a whisky-jack waiting for the scraps when the traveler has eaten. I don’t think any traveler minds even this companionship, for the prairies and the scrub forests can become deadly silent.